Northern Ireland: how an over-reaction to one murder brought politics to a halt

Strange bedfellows: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (centre left) and DUP leader Peter Robinson (centre right) outside Stormont. Niall Carson/PA

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has decided to abandon meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive “except in exceptional circumstances” because of the alleged involvement of the Provisional IRA in the recent murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan.

This is a dramatic move, and it epitomises both the gravity and the absurdity of Northern Ireland’s tense post-conflict politics, which still pits factions who want to stay in the UK (unionists, loyalists and mainly Protestants) against those who want unification with the Republic of Ireland (nationalists, republicans and mainly Catholics) – and in which the distinction between establishment unionists and more militant loyalists is as blurred as ever.

Since the first ceasefires in 1994, Northern Irish politics has been constantly in crisis, so much so that it would be a crisis if there was no crisis. Crises are useful; they provide reluctant parties with face-saving mechanisms, and allow them to stick with the difficult balance of power regardless of their rhetoric.

This paradox would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high. Appeals to ethnic-tribal constituencies whip up emotions in supporters, all to provide an excuse to continue with power-sharing for the sake of peace.

Off the hook

On this occasion, the comedy has been ably provided by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which has withdrawn its one minister from the executive – the last hurrah of a party that has already made itself largely irrelevant to the peace process by its lukewarm commitments to working with Sinn Fein. Under Mike Nesbitt, the UUP has tried to out-DUP the DUP in its appeal to traditional unionists – but the DUP is rather good at doing that itself.

What’s more, the UUP managed to let the DUP off the hook by allowing its leader, Peter Robinson, to appear relatively statesmanlike with his suggestion that withdrawal from the executive was the last rather than the first resort.

Even by Northern Ireland’s standards, this is an exceptionally unedifying farce. The DUP has not yet withdrawn from power-sharing, and the functions of the executive will continue apace behind the scenes.

And in the midst of this faux crisis about the re-emergence of the Provisional IRA, no-one has mentioned the evidence of the rude health and enviable wealth of the loyalist paramilitaries.

One crisis too many?

In recent years, mainstream unionist politicians have drawn flack for sharing platforms with members of the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), particularly during flag disputes. The UVF is an organisation allegedly responsible for one murder and several shootings

More than that, unionist politicians actually brought members of loyalist parties aligned to the UVF into the heart of the negotiation process during the short-lived United Unionist Front, which was designed to develop a “graduated response” to the impasse on parading.

Nesbitt has even defended his associations with Loyalist paramilitaries. What is good for the goose in Northern Irish politics is not good for the gander.

So far, so ridiculous – but there is something deeply serious at work here too. This is really two crises rolled into one.

Sinn Féin will not agree to a budget because it resists the Cameron government’s prescribed cuts to the welfare bill, and seems perfectly willing to see its Northern Ireland power base collapse to avoid implementing the cuts. The DUP, meanwhile, is all too ready to implement them.

On the face of it, this threatens to utterly collapse the whole power-sharing structure – and the British government’s threat to impose the welfare cuts from London, which smacks of a return to direct rule, may well prove one crisis too many.

But of course, it isn’t. If Sinn Féin really did conspire to bring down power-sharing, direct rule would be the likely outcome anyway. This is the apogee of Northern Ireland’s politics: a crisis threatening the very survival of power-sharing is the only way the entrenched parties can manage to coexist without giving up their irreconcilable positions.

Playing to the gallery

On top of all this, there’s the question of Kevin McGuigan’s murder and the Provisional IRA – a murky matter made sensitive by a serious unionist over-reaction.

Kevin McGuigan’s funeral in east Belfast. Niall Carson/PA

After all, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who believes that the murder involved Provisional IRA members but was not sanctioned by the organisation, has made it clear that he considers the Provisional IRA wholly committed to the peace process.

So why, with no serious suggestion that the Provisional IRA planned the murder on an organisational level, are the unionists raising such a ruckus? In one sense, it’s a brazen political ploy. Executive meetings are abandoned, allowing the British government to implement its welfare cuts without the democratic accountability the executive provides.

On another level, the unionists are using the confected IRA threat to resist the normalisation of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict politics. In a recent issue of The Irish News, the commentator Fionnuala O Connor recognised just how uneasy unionist politicians are with the whole idea of “normal” politics.

Northern Ireland is still dominated by sectarian identity politics, and its leaders play to ethnic-tribal constituencies rather than pursuing any moral vision of a shared society.

The DUP’s goal is less delivering a shared, united community than trumping the UUP – and the spectre of the Provisional IRA serves wonderfully the purpose of reproducing the identity politics of the past. Those who want a better future, it seems, can go hang while the battle over sectarian unionist loyalties rages on.

Herein is Sinn Féin’s problem. The party has not sufficiently convinced enough people that the war is over, which it needs to do if it wants to squash the farcical idea that the Provisional IRA wants to return to war.

The DUP and Sinn Féin need each other, because there is nowhere else for each to go. But even as they both recognise this, they will not admit it. Ethnic tribal divisions still triumph, and prop up a paradoxical status quo – at the cost of a better future for all.